Marcion of Sinope

Marcion of Sinope

Matthew 7:15-20

by Daniel Harrell

It feels great to be back in front of you this morning. Last Sunday I was preaching in Boston (yes I know the Twins swept the Red Sox–a wedding present to Angie and Randy) at my former church, Park Street Church, where I received a warm welcome by the few people still there who remember me. Turnover being what it is in that downtown church, I had to chuckle when I walked in and was greeted by an usher as if I was a visitor: “Can I help you find a place to sit?” he asked. “Got one reserved toward the front,” I said, liking what I imagined would be a bit of a shock when he saw me get up to preach. I did get to reconnect with some old-timer friends: they were easy to find since they all sat in the same pews they were sitting in two years ago. You know how that is. We tacked on a few extra days to hang out in Boston: breathing in the sea air, taking in the urban vibe, eating a lot of seafood. Mostly we ate it “in the rough;” that is, fresh out of the ocean to pot to mouth. But being a bit of a foodie, we enjoyed some finer dining establishments too. I had a delicious piece of wild caught striped bass delicately wood-grilled with a fava bean ragout and wilted arugula, pretentiously plated as they do almost everything in Boston.

I mentioned to the Park Street congregation how Minneapolis tends to be more of a meat and potatoes kind of place, but that’s not so true anymore. Flying back I saw Food and Wine Magazine cited Minneapolis as an up-and-coming avant-garde food scene, albeit without any of the pretentiousness. But this isn’t so true either. Just recently for Dawn’s birthday we went out to one of the restaurants mentioned in the article where the menu included slow cooked veal heart with canned Italian tuna, lardo and capers; Spanish octopus with heirloom tomatoes, squid ink tortellini, black olives and dill. See the picture I took of the dish I ate. I defy you identify what food this is. If that’s not pretentiousness on a plate I’m not sure what is.

Granted, pretense is part of what it means to go to a fine restaurant these days. It can be an intimidating experience. The waiter welcomes you and asks whether you have “dined with us before,” only to then inform you how things are “done differently” here. He then proceeds to ask a lot of questions intended to heighten your insecurity, which we put up with since this is why we go out to eat. Afterwards, he narrates the specials with words the chef probably made up that afternoon. A recent New Yorker piece offered this: “the shankton of wildrange fizzle served with a side of foraged burrbark.” And of course we reply how delicious that sounds since we don’t want to look any dumber than we already feel.

“You will know a tree by its fruit,” Jesus said, as much a comment about food as it is about character. One taste will tell you whether the chef is legit. The same applied to prophets in Jesus’ day, who were sort of the ancient equivalent of celebrity chefs. Each had a fervent following keen for a take on the latest religious craze. Just like restaurant crazes that come and go—Asian fusion, rustic American, Italian small plates or nouveau Scandinavian—fads showed up in religion too, be they emergent, ancient-future liturgical, seeker-sensitive, market-driven, unchurched relevant or merely old-time hymns put to pop rock rhythms (not that we would know anything about this). An opportunistic prophet could turn a profit if he wanted to, exploiting eager audiences solely for personal benefit. Thus Jesus said to watch out for the fakers: “They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves.”

Among the earliest documents in the church was the Didache, based on the teaching of the twelve apostles. It offered simple tests for determining whether a prophet was legit. For instance, if someone claiming a word from the Lord stuck around more than two days or asked for money, then he you knew that he was a one bad apple. Either that or a Congregational minister.

These days, true prophets and preachers are still rightly judged by their fruit. It’s not enough to be an engaging speaker or have a winsome personality, you have to practice what your preach. Content and conduct still matter. The standard for judging what’s right remains holy Scripture, words which Christians affirm to be the word of the Lord. Yet as God’s word, it wasn’t dictated or delivered directly from on high. As crazy as it sounds, Christians believe that somehow the Holy Spirit inspired these words through the mouths and pens of fallible human authors in the context of capricious communities. As these communities faithfully tried to follow the teachings these writings taught—and then grew and deepened as a result—these writings gained stature as Scripture. You know a good tree by its fruit.

But why these words and not others? Why the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John and not those of Peter, Thomas or Matthias, which were also circulating back then? And how did something as wacky as Revelation get in? Back in the day, there was a bit of a scramble as the Bible took its shape and the church sought its true identity. Even though a good tree cannot bear bad fruit, it sometimes takes a bite of a bad apple to fully understand what a good one tastes like. Some bad produce was required to produce the Bible as we know it—which finally brings us to Marcion of Sinope, this morning’s church father starting with the Letter M.

Fifteen years ago I began an annual sermon series during the summer on the Church Fathers, those personalities from church history who fashioned our faith and codified what we have come to embrace as orthodox Christianity. It’s proven popular enough that it will come out as an ebook this fall published by Patheos Press. I decided to tackle these personalities a letter at a time, which if you do the math, may make you wonder why in year 15 I’m only at letter M. The problem was all the patristic heroes clustered around the letter A—Ambrose, Athanasius, Augustine, Anselm and Aquinas. It took me a while to get out to B. My rationale for taking an annual peek at these people comes from my own conviction that our faith derives in no small part from the faithful personalities who lived it and wrestled with it through crucial moments in church history. While we Protestants may not venerate these important people as saints, we cannot separate their contributions from our own doctrines and practice. We may hold to the Bible alone as our sola source of authority, but interpreting and obeying the Bible necessarily stands on the interpretive shoulders of past believers.

Last year was my second foray into the Fathers here at Colonial—of great interest to some, a good reason to go to the cabin for others. So far we’ve covered letters K and L (Kierkegaard, and a Kempis, Leo, Luther and CS Lewis). This year we’ll look at Maximus the Confessor and the magnificent Michelangelo, as well as this week’s personality, Marcion, who was more of a church anti-father, a bad fruit faker who nevertheless played a pivotal role in shaping the Christianity we practice today.

Marcion lived in the second century and was one of the church’s earliest bishops. Christianity was not yet legal in the Roman Empire, but it was gaining ground, expanding beyond a lowly band of Jewish fringe followers to include Gentiles and a growing cache of elite intellectuals. Marcion was educated, highly respected and rich—his gave an enormous financial gift to the early church. However he was not a happy bishop. He read the writings the church was treating as Scripture, but didn’t like what he found. He thought that the Old Testament God came off as too angry and vengeful, nothing like the loving and gracious Lord of the New Testament. And he didn’t like that the Old and New Testaments were so hard to reconcile either. Why did Moses advocate “eye for an eye” but Jesus say “turn the other cheek”? Elisha had children eaten by bears, but Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me for to them belongs the kingdom of God.” Joshua stopped the sun in its path to continue the slaughter of his enemies; but Jesus said “love your enemies” and “do not let the sun go down on your anger.” The Old Testament permitted divorce and polygamy, but the New Testament prohibited both. Moses enforced the Jewish Sabbath and purity laws; but Jesus rendered both obsolete.

Then there was the Old Testament by itself. God commanded no work on the Sabbath, but then commanded the Israelites to carry the ark around Jericho seven times on a Sabbath. The second commandment forbid graven images, but then Moses fashioned a bronze serpent, of all things, for Israel to gaze upon to be healed. The maker of all things was supposedly omniscient, but in Genesis God wanders around the Garden wondering where Adam and Eve had gotten off to. For Marcion, as for many since, the Old Testament was a big problem.

Not that the New Testament didn’t have its own issues. Marcion even took issue with Jesus. Jesus may be the Son of God, but no way was he born of a human mother. Gods cannot be born. Rewriting Luke’s gospel, Marcion had Jesus simply showing up one day fully grown, though only in appearance. Gods cannot be human. True, God mercifully saved the world through the humanity of Jesus, so his life and death were necessary, but it didn’t hurt Jesus to do it. Gods don’t suffer and die.

Marcion’s views were shaped somewhat by the Gnostics, though he was not Gnostic himself. Gnosticism was an early pseudo-Christian sect and theological fad that stressed the superiority of spiritual knowledge (gnosis) over physical matter and existence. The Gnostics put forth a whole host of unorthodox ideas, which the church roundly rejected, but which Marcion nevertheless tried to incorporate. Marcion relegated the Old Testament God to the status of demigod, and thus, like the Gnostics, denigrated physical creation since it was just the product of a that demigod. The Heavenly Father of the New Testament had no part in making the world. Marcion viewed material existence as basely evil; the body as unworthy flesh to be disparaged. The resurrection of the body? Ridiculous. Salvation only happened to the soul.

Marcion also reflected the church’s growing Gentile composition and growing Jewish repudiation. He wanted a Christianity untrammeled and undefiled by association with its Jewish roots. He saw Christianity as the New Covenant, pure and simple. Therefore Marcion rejected the gospel of Matthew (too Jewish), and with it our Scripture passage this morning. He nixed Mark and John for the same reason. In his opinion, the twelve apostles misunderstood the teachings of Christ. They held Jesus to be the Messiah of the Jews and falsified his words from that standpoint. Only Paul got Christianity right. Accordingly, only Luke (Paul’s disciple) and Paul’s genuine epistles made it into Marcion’s Bible. All the pastoral epistles (dubiously Pauline), James, Jude and Hebrews (obviously) and Revelation (thankfully) were out. He dumped the whole Old Testament too.

A confident (and by some accounts, pretentious) Marcion announced his conclusions to his fellow bishops at a denominational meeting. Shocked by his views, the bishops excommunicated him on the spot and refunded all the money he had given to the church (which again, was substantial). Predictably, Marcion stormed off to start his own church, not so shockingly called the Marcionites. They built their church buildings catty-cornered from established Catholic churches, just like you’ll often find Baptists and Presbyterians set up on opposite corners these days. These Marcionite churches thrived for a while; but eventually, bad fruit being what it is, Marcionism rotted away. And yet there are still those who perceive the God of the Old Testament to be wrathful and judicious when compared to the loving God of the New; still those who are suspicious of the resurrection of the body, insisting that God saves our souls not our whole selves; and still those for whom Revelation remains a book too wacky to ever read on purpose.

Marcion himself wrote a single work, entitled Antitheses, that only survives by way of deduction. Its content is inferred from the writings of his detractors, most notably Tertullian (Letter T) whose formidable (and creatively titled) work, Against Marcion, established Christian orthodoxy for the next 1500 years. Failing as a prophet, Marcion nevertheless succeeded in accelerating the church to finalize its canon, the last word on what would be the word. The Church affirmed the Hebrew Bible, since it was the Scripture Jesus used. And it affirmed those writings authored by bona fide apostles or their secretaries as the New Testament, most of which cite or allude to the Hebrew Bible too. (The reason that Protestants never accepted the Apocrypha as canon is because they never are quoted in the New Testament.) Opposition to Marcion also led to the formulation of the Apostle’s Creed which avows God as Maker of heaven and earth, Christ as his only begotten son born of a virgin woman and bodily risen from the dead, and a life everlasting not solely for the soul.

Among the passing fads Marcionite churches practiced was serving water rather than wine for communion. (Most American Protestant churches, including Colonial, tracing back to Prohibition, use grape juice instead of wine, but that’s a sermon for another Sunday). The Marcionites served water because, unlike wine, they believed water to be uncontaminated by the impurities of the world. But we worship a Lord who took on contamination, specifically our contamination, by his own flesh and blood. The bread and the wine are the body and blood of Jesus given to us for the sake of new life. Unlike other fancy food trends, this has proven to be no passing fad. This tree bears good fruit that lasts for an eternity.